Today is yet another interview with a debut picture book author. I love these, especially when it’s a story that hits close to one of my own obsessions.
Nell Cross Beckerman is inspired by the magic of free play in nature. She has at least 3 picture books under contract. She is a former TV producer who worked at MTV, VH1, MSNBC, and The Discovery Channel in NYC where she also co-founded the popular online parenting community West Village Parents. Today, she lives in Venice Beach, CA with her two daughters and husband, and new puppy, Teddy. You can learn more about her at her website.
Her debut, DOWN UNDER THE PIER, is illustrated by Rachell Sumpter and published by Cameron Kids. It’s a story that explores the fun to be found on top of a lively beach pier, before it reveals the hidden world down under the pier where the animals of the intertidal zone live. It’s a great picture book for beginners interested in exploring the worlds that live in the ocean’s tides (which is of course a subject near and dear to my own heart).
Me: What draws you to writing picture books?
Nell: I’m sure we all struggle to verbalize the magic of the picture book experience. I’ve thought a lot about why this form speaks to me so much, and I think it is because I’m able to use the storytelling skills I developed when I was a TV producer at VH1, MTV, MSNBC and the Discovery Channel. Most of my TV stories were short and about very silly and fun things like the world’s smallest “nanoguitar,” a woman who claimed to own Elvis’s toenail, and features about child stars from the 80s (yes, meeting Danny Pintauro from “Who’s the Boss?” was a particular thrill). These stories (or “segments” to use TV lingo) were very short—1 minute and 30 seconds—but I still had to build a lot of drama into them, and have a beginning, middle and end story arc. I loved it! But I got a bit burned out and when I had kids I “leaned out.”
Once my kids were older and in school, I started to get very itchy to work and be creative again. I had a loooong journey to find my creative footing (it’s all so much easier when you are being creative for other people as a job) but with the help of Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way, and a class at The Playful Art Studio, I was able to gain some creative confidence. I was ready to get back in it! I wanted to take a class, have deadlines, start to have a life outside of the home…but where to go? I looked at the offering at UCLA Extension, where I live, and the only class that seemed appealing was Writing Picture Books, taught by the amazing Michele Markel. I signed up, and my eyes were opened as to how incredible the genre is.
Michele assigned us 10 picture books to read every week and we had to analyze each one—really looking at them academically and seeing how they worked. She shared Christopher Myers’ BLACK CAT, which is a moody, urban, poetic book—nothing like I’d ever seen! That made me very interested in this as a genre that has room to really stretch creatively. I also was exposed to Shaun Tan’s THE RULES OF SUMMER which was pretty mind-blowing. I realized that what I loved about TV—writing scripts that went with visuals— was not totally unlike picture books. And the stories were SHORT which was perfect for my short attention span.
I loved bouncing between different stories rather than feeling stuck with one long one. (I tried and failed many times to write novels) The other thing that clicked for me was that I knew I needed to find “co-workers” and pretty aggressively pursued a few women in my class to become critique partners. I knew having some community and accountability was essential to moving forward. The cherry on top of this new creative venture was that I really felt like I could make a difference for kids. I could share the wonder and beauty of the world. My efforts would be, ultimately, to help make the world a better place, rather than sell advertise like I did as a TV producer. All these things together drew me to writing picture books!
Me: Your book talks about the wonders of the ocean to be found under the pier. Did you grow up near the piers in Santa Monica? Did you play under them when you were a child? What inspired this story?
Nell: I grew up in both Los Angeles and San Diego. My dad was a biologist who especially loved tide pools and marine life, so I was very lucky to grow up poking around his lab and exploring nature and animals with him. He took me under the Santa Monica Pier and we also went to Crystal Pier in San Diego.
The inspiration for the story came during a visit to LA with my family—we lived in NYC at the time. We had a ton of fun on top of the Santa Monica Pier (we all love the arcade and rides and games!) and then I took them under the pier. It happened to be low tide and they went insane, running around and screaming. It was magical and stuck with me.
Me: The back matter of this book talks about some of the critters found in the intertidal zone that live there. Did you do a lot of research about those creatures for this story? How do you know what lives under the piers in Santa Monica Bay?
Nell: My dad is always my first resource as he is a researcher. He named some of the animals I wasn’t already familiar with, like gooseneck barnacles, but then I also did a lot of research on my own. In the original back matter I tried harder to explain tides and the different bands of animals you can see on the pier pilings due to the different spray zones and what animals can survive in which spray zones, as well as talking about animals who live in the swash zone. I also connected with staff at the Heal the Bay Aquarium under the Santa Monica Pier—they have a whole exhibit of what lives under the pier, and I asked them to vet the manuscript as well. They were very enthusiastic and accommodating. Accuracy was very important to me.
Me: The front matter of your book mentions that some of your proceeds are donated to Heal the Bay Aquarium. Is it important to you to protect the sea life found under the piers? What do you want children to know about this endeavor?
Nell: Heal the Bay is a non-profit that works to mobilize LA’s diverse communities to protect our coastline, restore our waterways, and speak out for smart water policy. In high school I participated in beach cleanups and fundraisers with Heal the Bay. Protecting sea life by doing things like not releasing hot air balloons, cutting up plastic six-pack rings, not always flushing the toilet to conserve water, and recycling were all part of my teenage years with environmentalism at a time when it was less common.
The Heal the Bay Aquarium is a smaller part of Heal the Bay, and they provide education and camps, plus they are just a very fun, hands-on, non-commercial little but mighty aquarium. I took my kids to the pier so much growing up, and having that education and connection with nature by popping in the aquarium helped offset all the skeeball and cotton candy. I’m donating part of my author proceeds to the aquarium because I am grateful for what they do. Once you have that up-close experience with sea life, it makes it easier to care about environmentalism.
I am also currently supporting a donation drive for The Book Foundation, a non-profit in LA that gets brand new books into the hands and homes of kids who are underserved or at risk here in LA. You can purchase a copy of my book for direct donation to the The Book Foundation here, if you wish.
Me: The illustrations in this book are wonderful. Did you communicate with the illustrator, Rachell Sumpter, about her work at all? Were there any illustration surprises for you?
Nell: Oh, yes, I share your enthusiasm for the illustrations. Rachell is an exquisite artist and you can tell she gave this book her all. We had almost no communication. However, last summer, she started to post Instagram Stories with sneak peeks of the art as she was making it. It was wildly exciting for me. I posted my enthusiasm and cheered her on from the other side of the screen. There were tiny little surprises for me, like seeing that the Ferris Wheel was a near replica of the one on the Santa Monica Pier, and many details I was very happy to see, like the kids in the story were of diverse ethnicity. One detail I found very interesting was that there are no parents with the kids in the illustrations. I personally love this—I’m a fan of the “free range” kid.
In college I majored in art history and I’m such an illustrator groupie. I just feel more at home on Instagram with all the illustrators lol. It’s a huge honor to be paired with the talent I have been thus far.
Me: What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?
Nell: This was my second picture book manuscript, and the process of writing it revealed to me how much I love words. I thought I was more plot-based, but, when I worked with a freelance editor, she taught me a lot. She broke down my choice of words, explained the lyricism and patterns that could exist with more attention, and I became much more attuned to interior rhymes, refrains, alliteration, etc….and I loved it.
I just loved playing with the words. When an agent read the manuscript she said, “You’re a poet” which surprised me because honestly I don’t like poetry! But I’ve come to learn that I do like lyrical, poetic stories. Some of my favorites are written by April Pulley Sayre, Julie Fogliano, Emily Jenkins, Liz Garton Scanlon, and Miranda Paul. I also love singer/songwriter Fiona Apple and am inspired by how she uses words and how she has developed as an artist in general.
Me: Any advice for new picture book writers?
Nell: Yes, I heard this a million times myself but it is so true—it can take a long time to get your legs and find your voice with your writing. I think if you want a long career, you do best to hold your bar very high and not just try to get one book published as quickly as possible. So my advice is don’t rush, even though it can be tempting to want that deal announcement asap. Join SCBWI and take advantage of their offerings.
The 12x 12 Picture Book Challenge, run by Julie Hedlund, is an amazing supportive community, filled with great advice and education. If you can, I also recommend the retreats held by the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. I’m a fan of retyping books from my mentor texts to really have their artistry sink in. Work and work until you really have a few that are very very polished and your voice is developed. It could take years. Enjoy this time and nurture yourself as an artist. Fill up your creative tank outside of the kid lit community as well—go for hikes, go see art, go see shows, play with glitter, or just do things you consider “play.” Don’t freak out if you don’t write for a while, it’s okay! We’re all doing our best in these days—treat yourself with kindness. Take yourself seriously and give your family boundaries so you have space and time to work. And, most importantly, get a supportive critique group. I would be nowhere without mine!
Aww! Thank you Nell for all of that wonderful advice. Dear readers, if you haven’t had a chance yet to check out this book, you must. It’s a quieter lyrical text that succeeds without a plot and those are a rare find in the current market. Don’t miss out!